Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

June 12, 2007

On the Most Admired Historical Figures

Filed under: culture, history, politics — codesmithy @ 6:59 am

What is your favorite historical figure? Did you think of a president? If so, I am talking to you. In general, I think there is too much admiration of American presidents. None of them were perfect, and I think private citizen are not necessarily given a fair shake for what they accomplished. For example, let’s look at the three presidents who have monuments dedicated to them near or on the national mall: Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson.

First, we will address Lincoln. Yes, Lincoln saved the union, but in doing so he suspended “Habeas Corpus” without which no other rights are guaranteed. He did enact the emancipation proclamation, but it only applied to slaves in states that rebelled (making it hardly a controversial measure) and was a political maneuver to wedge Great Britain from being able to aid the confederacy. It was good politics but hardly a selfless moral declaration. Third, it is apparent that Lincoln didn’t necessarily believe in political equality for African-Americans that were freed from slavery. That isn’t to say Lincoln wasn’t one of America’s best presidents, but it is disingenuous to ignore his faults.

George Washington was the quintessential American president, but he was also one of the wealthiest plantation owners in Virginia. His plantation grew tobacco and he owned slaves, (although to his credit he did free them… after he died). Washington instituted martial law during the “Whiskey Rebellion” and was the first to use federal force to put down our nation’s citizens under the new constitution.

Thomas Jefferson, while the author of our declaration of independence with its language of inalienable rights, was also a slaveholder. And although he did make the Louisiana purchase doubling the size of the nation.  The purchase only released French claims from the land, not the Native Americans living there. Apparently, they were not worthy of the same consideration. Coincidently, the purchase of land from a nation that recently came under the rule of military dictator after a bloody revolution to finance wars around Europe is of dubious morality despite the obvious benefits to the United States. Although, Jefferson did free some slaves after his death, they may have been the ones that he had fathered.

I want to make it clear, that I do respect Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson. But, with that respect, I must also admit that they had flaws. I don’t think that we do any justice to history by emphasizing just the achievement without admitting the dark past. If I am too harsh, it is only an attempt to bring some balance to perspective of these figures.

That said, I think those in power receive too much awe and people working outside the system like Ralph Nader, John Lennon, Eugene Debs, Helen Keller and W.E.B. Du Bois receive too little.   These men and women found ways to change society without violence, although for some violence or threats of violence were used against them.  Compare this to presidents that we consider forward looking like Woodrow Wilson’s with his vision of a League of Nations and rhetoric of self-determination.  He involved the United States in World War I, and patently lied about the cargo of the Lusitania.  Although, we may credit his legacy with the United Nations, we shouldn’t ignore his support of racism and colonialism. The fact that he refused to grant an audience with Ho Chi Minh set the stage for a bloody conflict that would divide the nation years in the future.  The strengthening of Jim Crow and the KKK in the South continued the injustice and terror African-Americans suffered in America.

I have hope that if we emulate those people who changed society without violence and view ourselves as Einstein and Russell put it “not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt.”  Then, we might ensure our continued survival with justice and morality instead of meeting destruction and calamity through tyranny and bloodshed.

In school, the teachers said anyone could grow up to be president.  I don’t believe that anymore, but I also don’t believe you have to be president to make a difference.

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